Parashat Pinchas, Wherein God Welcomes Human Questioning.
July 28, 2016
This week, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza, the daughters of Zelophehad, come forward. They stand before Moses, the priest and chieftains, and the entire assembly, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and say: “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not one of Korach’s faction… Why should our father’s name be lost because he had no son? Give us an inheritance.”
The Rabbis ask: Why do they bother telling Moses that their father was not a part of Korach’s band of rebels? And they answer: He was not a man swallowed by the earth; he was a man who died of natural causes – his death was not a lesson. The Rabbi’s say the sisters were asserting the legitimacy of their complaint against the present regime – in contradistinction to Korach.
They are a legitimate minority voice, and their audience, indeed, their request for equity, is granted.
In hearing their case, Moses realizes that this is an exception to the law – theirs is a situation not taken into account by the law; he finds himself unable, in good conscience, to perform as ordered, and he brings the problem back to God for re-consideration. Our Rabbis site this incident as reason for the importance of recording minority opinions. And the Talmud is the rare legal code that religiously records minority opinions, including the opinions that do not pass into law.
Former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon explains that Jewish Law accepts uniformity in legal decision-making as an operative necessity. On the theoretical plane, however, it considers each and every opinion as important, and it maintains the full spectrum of views.
During the process of editing the Mishnah, the divergent views and disputes among the various rabbis were preserved and recorded. One reason for this, stated explicitly in the Mishnah, is that should a later court of law see fit to rule in accordance with the minority opinion, it would be at liberty to do so. Professor Elon explains that there is no such thing as an absolute ruling in Jewish law. Every talmudic case has multiple considerations and although the majority determines the ruling in a particular age, a different majority, at a different time, might arrive at a different conclusion.
When asked my opinion as to why Judaism has prevailed as a religion that promotes human flourishing, I point to this. Judaism is meant to be a flexible, elastic, an evolving framework, designed to provide the proper embrace in every age. And when I am asked why I think that Jews turn away from Judaism, I say it is because some powerful Jews have frozen in fear of change and that a protective rigidity can only feel comforting for so long, then it will begin to feel like a restraint holding us back from more natural expression of the very spirituality it means to contain.
We are mandated to renew in every age, living our Jewish lives in compatibility with the values and traditions of our forbearers, enlivening those traditions and values with their authentic expression in our own time. And I ask: Who are the daughters of Zelophehad in our community? And can’t we have the same faith Moses demonstrated? If we question in the name of conscience and kindness and equity, won’t today’s God be on the side of love and inclusion? I like to believe that God rejoices in the evolution of human life on earth and is fulfilled in seeing that we take life seriously enough to stretch and tailor our inherited structures so that they fit us and serve us well.
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